Chantal Thomas: Farewell, my Queen – Les Adieux à la reine (2002)

Farewell, my Queen

I’ve always been fascinated by Marie Antoinette and I tend to like the choices for the French Prix Femina. Chantal Thomas’ novel Farewell, my Queen – Les Adieux à la reine  won the prize in 2002 and has been been made into a movie in 2012. Chantal Thomas is an academic, specialized in the  XVIIIe century. Farewell, my Queen was her first novel.

What appealed to me was that she chose to tell the story from the point of view of Agathe-Sidonie Laborde, the queen’s reader. The book begins in 1810, in Vienna. Agathe-Sidonie is 65 years old and looking back on her life at Versailles, especially, her three last days there— July 14, July 15 and July 16 1789. At the end of the last day, most of the close entourage of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI will have fled Versailles. The queen is left behind although she’s in great danger. Agathe-Sidonie is told to flee with the de Polignacs.

Marie Ant.

Focussing on three days, describing the many rituals, the rooms and apartments of the people living at Versailles, and contrasting Marie Antoinette at Le Petit Trianon and at Versailles, give an incredible insight into the life of this ill-fated woman. Her fears and joys are rendered vividly, her character comes to life. Agathe-Sidonie is not part of the entourage, she’s just a better sort of servant, which allows Chantal Thomas to play with proximity and distance, the effect of which is quite arresting. At times, we see the queen from afar, the way her people saw her, at times, when Agathe-Sidonie reads to her, or sits in her rooms, all but forgotten, we get a very intimate look at the poor queen.

While I think the French Revolution was more than justified, I was still moved by this account, by the growing fear of the courtiers. Many of the scenes take place during the night and, since most of the servants abandoned the court, they take place in obscurity, which enhances the feeling of doom and danger.

Marie Antoinette

What I liked best is how Chantal Thomas used the descriptions of light and weather to underline emotions. I equally loved her use of imagery and symbols. One of the most beautiful was evoked when Agathe-Sidonie looks back and thinks of the season of the queen’s balls. Marie Antoinette was very fond of fashion. Of course that was one of the things she was blamed for the most. Before the season of the balls she would order numerous new dresses, one per ball. Those dresses would be hidden from everyone’s eyes until the day of the ball, but the inhabitants of Versailles could see them being transported back and forth from the tailor’s rooms to the queen’s rooms. The dresses were wrapped in white taffeta, and called by many “the shadows of the queen”. When Agathe -Sidonie remembers this, the queen herself has become a mere shadow.

I wondered often why people were so fascinated by Marie Antoinette. When you read Farewell, my Queen, you get a pretty good idea why. She must have been very gentle, joyful, playful, and affectionate. She loved beautiful things and everything around her had to be perfect. I felt pity for this girl who came to the court at the age of 15 and was disgraced and guillotined at 37.

It’s chilling to read about the last moments at Versailles, and how even her most intimate friends like the Duchess de Polignac fled the palace. Because Agathe-Sidonie loved the queen and her life at Versailles, the book is very nostalgic.

Farewell, my Queen is unlike any other Marie Antoinette novel I’ve read. It could only have been written by someone who has done extensive research. Still, it’s moving and nostalgic and really beautiful. It’s almost as good as my favourite historical novel L’allée du Roi  – The King’s Way by Françoise Chandernagor, which tells the story of Mme de Maintenon. The two novels complement each other, as we see Versailles still under construction in The King’s Way and abandoned in the later book.

I’m tempted to watch the movie but I’m afraid it took a lot of liberties and is very different from the book.

24 thoughts on “Chantal Thomas: Farewell, my Queen – Les Adieux à la reine (2002)

  1. Great commentary Caroline.

    This sounds really good.

    Having read about Marie Antoinette in a fair number of non fiction books I feel very sorry for her, despite the fact that she was a flawed person.

    I was considering reading a non fiction biography of her.

    • Thanks, Brian.
      I feel the same about her. Sure, she was flawed but she was so young when she married Louis XVI.
      I’ve got Antonia Fraser’s biography which was made into a film by Sofia Coppola. The book is said to be very good.

  2. By coincidence, I read this right before visiting Versailles some years ago; it colored my entire visit. And for a historical novel, it’s remarkably compact and affecting.

    • I could imagine that it would have an influence reading this. I’ve not visited Versailles since I was a kid. I’m tempted to return.
      Yes, it’s not your every day historical novel.

  3. I watched the film and liked it. I’m not one for historical fiction (although I also saw the L’allee du Roi and considered reading that book) but I know a MS fan who would be interested so I’ll pass the recommendation along.

    • As Scott just pointed out as well -it’s not your usual historical novel. It’s really special but yu need to be interested in Marie Antoinette. L’allée du Roi is amazing. Although it’s much lnger, it’s still quite compact.

  4. I enjoyed your review and commentary, Caroline. I usually steer away from historical fiction, but this novel does sound a little different to the norm. A friend from my book group would love this one so I’ll mention it to her.

    • Thanks, Jacqui. I like some historical novels but when it’s too descriptive, too fluffy I’m not keen. This is affecting but still sober. I hope your friend will like it.

  5. Popular imagery is not kind to Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI: they’re seen as shallow and totally unfit for managing the country. The republican school always presents the Revolution as inevitable with these monarchs at the head of the country.

    Have you read Zweig’s Marie-Antoinette? I wonder how an Austrian sees her and writes about her.

    • I think that they really were unfit for the job. The way she’s described here she wasn’t mean or nasty she was just very immmature and lonely.
      I want to read Zweig’s book. I started it once and it didn’t appeal to me then. The fact that she was Austrian didn’t make her a lot of friends in France either.

  6. Wonderful review, Caroline. This looks like a wonderful novel about the French Revolution and I am tempted to get it. I haven’t read much about Marie Antoinette except for that quote attributed to her (when told that poor people were suffering because they didn’t have bread, she is supposed to have replied on why they didn’t have cake) and I know only the basic outline of the French Revolution – so there is much to learn and read for me. When I was younger, I used to think that any kind of movement / revolution which overthrew a monarchy (or a dictatorship) and put in place a republic or a democracy was good. But now, after growing up, I am not so sure. I see that in democracies and republics too, there are rulers and the ruled and the rulers are more privileged and get away with breaking the law, most of rulers get rich by ill-gotten gains and many of them run a household like the old kings and queens with an army of servants and butlers and parties. In a sense, except for the name change (we are now republics or democracies) and the illusion that we citizens elect the government, nothing seems to have changed much. Of course, this is probably a view leaning on the cynical side and things are probably not as bad as that, but I am also sure that things aren’t as great as they would have been imagined by the people who instigated those revolutions. Also, there is some truth in the statement that a revolution devours its own children – it happened during the French Revolution (people who played a big part in starting the revolution ended up in the guillotine themselves) and it happened during the Russian Revolution and in events that happened in China which resulted in the overthrow of the monarchy. In my most cynical moments, I don’t even know what form of government is the best, because all systems seem to have flaws because people run the system and they are imperfect and the people who thirst for power always end up as rulers.

    Sorry for the long comment – couldn’t resist sharing. Would love to hear your thoughts on it.

    Thanks for this beautiful review.

    • Thanks, Vishy. I hope you’ll read it. I think it’s wonderful.
      I agree with you. I think it needs a special kind of charcater to want to rule and in the end it’s hardly ever for truly altruistic purposes. Nonetheless -it has chnaged for the better. The descriptions of the poor in the book are appealing. And while there is extreme poevrty in the world, there’s nothing like this in Europe anymore. Switzerland is the only direct democracy, so I think, to some extent it works but I believe it was Plato who said that the only true government would be an enlightened dictatorship. THis is, unfortunately a contradiction in itself but there’s a grain of truth. Things are better at the moment but we’re killing off our planet becuase too many people have to many means to do so. It seems we can’t win. I’m pessimistic.
      The cake quote is famous but I think if she really said it it simply shows how naive she was. She didn’t understand that they had no bread because they had absolutely nothing. She just thought – well if there’s no bread – then eat cake. Versailles was a huge machine that run on invisible wheels. That’s why this book is so amazing. It shows what happens when those wheels stop – when the servants just left. People didn’t even know how to feed themselves. How to run a bath.
      Still, I agree, the diferences are hige. It’s just elsewhere. A CEO may make millions. And, of course, it’s all much better hidden. While the poor were at the gates of Versailles, our riches depnd on the poor in Asia and Africa.

      • That Plato quote is interesting, Caroline. Thanks for sharing. I agree with you that it is a contradiction in terms. The Communist leaders of the early 20th century thought in similar terms – that a group of intelligent people (instead of one benevolent dictator) will be on top and make decisions which are good for the country. That system didn’t work, unfortunately, and it turned out to be worse. It is nice to know that Switzerland is a direct democracy. I think it is an extremely rare system in today’s world. From what you have said in your review and what you have told me, Marie Antoinette seems to be a nice person – she was born in the royal family and she wasn’t aware of the outside world because she lived behind closed doors most of the time (not her fault) and she was punished for no fault of her own. I think I would have liked her, if I had met her. On another topic, there seems to be a revival of interest in that era of kings and queens and princesses and earls and countesses with series like ‘Downton Abbey’ showing them in good light. I don’t know whether that depiction is closer to the truth or whether it is adapted to the tastes of a 21st century audience, but it is wonderful to watch. Do you watch / like ‘Downton Abbey’?

        • I watched Downton Abbey but there’s another series I liked even more – The Tudors. That made me shudder. I can’t say that Henry the VIII was shown in a favourable light. I don’t thinkm I knew how bloddy and awful his reign was. Of course I knew about the women. Divorced – beheaded – died – divorced – beheaded – survived – as they learn in English schools but I didn’ know about all the torture and pain he inflicted because of religion.
          Yes, Switzerland is possibly the only direct demcracy but sadly it has been moving away from it in the last couple of years.
          According to this novel Marie Antoinete was naïve but very gentle and when she was outside of Versailles – in her own little world of the Petit Trianon – she treated her servants very kindly.
          If you haven’t watched Sofia Coppola’s movie yet – you should. Kirsten Dunst is wonderful as Marie Antoinette. The movie takes interesting liberties, very modern but I loved it.

  7. This sounds good and melancholy. I watched the movie with Kirsten Dunst and loved it – such a grand show, a true feast for the eyes. It does seems she was oblivious to what happened outside the palace gates and I wonder if it was any of her fault at all, not really caring. Some can’t just break free of their sheltered life. Maybe they don’t know how.

    • It’s very melancholy. That’s what I loved about it. Some people are like that. Being too young to understand isn’t always an excuse. I remember watching The Downfall and the young woman – Hitler’s secretary – said that she’d been too young to understand what was going on, while the Sholl’s – The White Rose – were fighting Hitler and were the same age.
      Still, I don’t think Marie Antoinette was mean. Silly and oblivious but not the monster they saw in her.

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